David

By Earle Birney
A generation of Canadian schoolchildren and university students has grown up
knowing the story of a mountain climber who fell 50 feet to a narrow ledge, was
badly injured, then pushed off the ledge to his death by his friend in an act of
mercy. The climber\'s name was David, also the title of the story. Its author was

Earle Birney. At one time or another in the last 25 years, David has been
required reading for high schools and universities in every Canadian province.

Mountains that are actually on the map near the Banff-Lake Louise area -

Inglismaldie, Assiniboine and the Sawback Range - form part of the setting.

Reaction on the part of teachers and students has been swift and marvelous: many
fancied themselves literary detectives, deciding that Earle Birney had pushed
his friend David off a high ledge to death in a remote Rocky Mountain valley.

Which is murder, by some definitions. Birney was exasperated and frustrated by
these interpretations of his fictional story. Carried to a most fantastic
length, it didn\'t seem entirely improbable that he might be hauled into court
and charged with homicide. And sentenced to real death for committing a
fictional murder? In fact, a number of schoolteachers in Ontario protested
against having to teach a poem that "advocated mercy killing". One

Alberta university professor said in a 1971 essay: "... there is proof that
this was no fictional story. Birney\'s companion on that fatal mountain climb was
a real David. His death was reported as being due to a rockslide." In a

1963 Canadian Alpine Journal there\'s an article about Birney\'s imaginary Finger

Mountain, entitled "How Many Routes on the Finger?" It begins:
"Modern legend, based on a poem written by Dr. Earle Birney, has led at
least 10 climbing parties in the last few years to an intriguing rock climb near

Banff. It is not known whether the hero in David actually climbed the
spire..." Of course that article assumes David to be a real person.

Another odd thing: when Birney wrote his poem, the Finger was imaginary and did
not exist. But since that time (1942) a mountain near Banff has actually been
given the name. Chills must run up and down a writer\'s back as the people in a
fictional landscape gather round him with accusing glances. It\'s little wonder
that Birney doesn\'t want to include the poem in his university readings. Or that
he displays impatient irritation if some fledgling sleuth says to him: "Why
did you kill David?" Especially since the poem\'s genesis actually derives
from a newspaper story in the twenties, about a student mountain climber. This
man had broken his spine while ascending a mountain. His fellow climber, unable
to move him, had guided rescuers back to the accident within a few hours. But
the real-life David was dead from his injuries and exposure. Birney appropriated
his name for the poem. Birney is sick of the subject of David, and since I\'ve
known him for some 20 years, I have some idea of his feelings. It must be like
being taken over by a Doppelganger or the ventriloquist\'s puppet into which
you\'ve thrown your own voice. Still, I\'m fascinated by the idea of part of your
personality getting away on you, having an existence of its own. And that is the
ultimate tribute to the writer\'s art, and to Birney himself. The
poet-novelist-man-Birney is six feet tall, thin and built like a whiplash. Blue
eyes and sandy-grey beard, with an energy that drives him pacing round the
living room from typewriter to balcony to boxes storing hundreds of books, then
back for more talking. His energy is something I\'ve always envied. Birney is 15
years older than I am, and he\'s leaving the country for London, Paris, Cairo,

Bangkok, Singapore and Australia - with a zest for all the onrushing strangeness
of other countries and the friends there he will see again. He thinks of it as
his "last hurrah". Earle Birney is one of the two best poets in Canada
(the other is Irving Layton). Honors have poured on him throughout a long life
of writing and teaching: the Governor-General\'s Award twice, a first Borestone

Mountain poetry award, the Lorne Pierce Medal for Literature, several Canada

Council awards. Beginning in 1942 with David, he has published some 20 books,
including the two-volume Collected Poems published this fall. Projected works
include one volume each of plays, short stories, political writings, Chaucer
essays (he\'s an authority on Geoffrey Chaucer), travel, literary essays and
reviews. I suspect there